Sen. Red Dawn Foster, D-Pine Ridge, foreground, listens as Rep. Scott Odenbach, R-Spearfish, asks a question about a proposed task force on Native American children in foster care on Feb. 27, 2023, during a hearing at the Capitol in Pierre. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
PIERRE – A House panel on Monday endorsed a two-year task force to study Native American overrepresentation in South Dakota’s foster care system.
Senate Bill 191 cleared the full Senate last week. It’s the only bill related to Native children in foster care to have survived past a committee hearing so far this session.
The Indian Child Welfare Task Force created through SB 191 would be a 17-member group of stakeholders. It would include lawmakers and representatives from the state’s nine tribes and officials with the state Department of Social Services. Its work would last more than twice as long as typical legislative interim committees, which are composed of lawmakers, meet after the session’s end in March and submit final reports and recommended legislation before December.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Red Dawn Foster, D-Pine Ridge, said understanding the complexities of the state’s foster care system and the interplay of state agencies and tribal governments will require input from more people and take more time than a typical summer study.
It’s been nearly two decades since the state took a comprehensive look at the foster care system and its impact on Native children, and Foster said the problems persist.
More than 60% of children removed from their homes by the DSS are Native American, Foster told the committee. Native Americans are about 10% of the state population.
All too often, in the past and recently, we've seen where poverty is the basis for a case to remove children.
– Peter Lengkeek, chairman, Crow Creek Sioux Tribe
Some of those children grow up to be overrepresented in the state’s prison system. Others remain scarred by removal from their homes and struggle with mental illness, drug and gambling addiction, and other problems at higher rates than other children.
“Something is not working,” Foster told the House Judiciary Committee on Monday. “This task force will work to figure out what that is.”
Foster’s bill fared better than two other legislative attempts to address the disparity more directly.
The two failed bills, respectively, would have prioritized Native families in the foster care placement of Indian children in the state and increased the threshold for the removal of children from a home by the DSS.
Those bills were sponsored by Rep. Peri Pourier, D-Rapid City. Like Foster, Pourier is an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Pourier, Foster and their supporters have pointed out that South Dakota’s reservations are in some of the nation’s poorest counties.
“All too often, in the past and recently, we’ve seen where poverty is the basis for a case to remove children,” Peter Lengkeek, the chairman of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, told the Judiciary Committee on Monday.
The bill to create the task force earned unanimous but somewhat tepid support from the panel.
Committee members questioned the scope of the study, what some saw as unfair assumptions about DSS decision-making and the length of time involved. Rep. Tyler Tordsen, R-Sioux Falls, voted in favor, but had pointed questions about the task force’s focus.
Housing, career opportunities, drug addiction and other factors play into troubles on the reservation, he said. Those topics were all mentioned in testimony from supporters.
“It seems like this is broader than the foster care system,” said Tordsen, an enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe. “Can you help us understand the scope of this?”
Rep. Rebecca Reimer, R-Chamberlain, voiced similar concerns about the scope of work, as well as the notion that the DSS targets the poor.
“I can’t believe we would remove children just for poverty,” Reimer said.
The bill has six areas of study, including to review the results of the 2004 task force, how to boost the recruitment of Native American foster families and how to overcome barriers to family reunification. Reimer suggested narrowing the list to improve the task force’s chances at success.
Rep. Tamara St. John, R-Sisseton, said the tribes need to be ready to address issues on their own land as they work with the state.
“The lack of Native American foster families is a big issue,” said St. John, an enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Tribe who serves as tribal archivist.
Foster told lawmakers that the group would zero in on the foster care system, only addressing any root causes on the reservations as they emerge in discussion. The task force would collaborate with the DSS, she said, as well as child protection agencies from the state’s tribal governments.
The purpose is not to lay blame at the state’s feet, she said, but to address the needs of and impacts to the approximately 1,400 children removed from Native American homes every year.
“When you’re looking at thousands of children, that’s a crisis,” Foster said.
Rep. Scott Odenbach, R-Spearfish, voted in favor after peppering Foster with questions on the DSS’s motivations and the task force’s focus on factors both internal and external to reservations.
The support of multiple tribal governments and letters from the Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association urging lawmakers to take up the issue of foster care helped push Odenbach to a “yes” vote on Foster’s bill.
Odenbach voted against Pourier’s bills.
“We have to give some weight to them when they keep coming back to us with their concerns,” Odenbach said.
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